This is Part II of a two-part series. Part I addresses the question, “Where do we go from here?” Part II addresses the question: “How are we going to get there?”
Who do you choose to be for this time? Are you willing to use whatever power and influence you have to create islands of sanity that evoke and rely on our best human qualities to create, produce and persevere?
Margaret Wheatley, Who Do We Choose to Be
In Part I, we found ourselves standing at a bifurcation point triggered by a global pandemic. Here, we are confronted with choice: either we double down on our existing system, further eroding civil liberties and natural resources until the system collapses into chaos; or we trailblaze a new path, forging a new social contract that redistributes wealth and power and safeguards the planet’s resources.
As we slowly emerge from disaster and release the collective breath we’ve been holding, it might be easy to believe that the restoration of “normalcy” lets us off the hook for radical change. The path of moderation presents itself yet again: we envision the international community joining hands in reducing CO2, a few more diverse leaders coming to power, and the middle class growing, thus renewing our economic and social fabric. All the world benefits.
Alas, the era of incrementalism has come to an end. When a system reaches its bifurcation point—when it can no longer sustain its existing behaviour—a healthy living system will take in new information, reorganise itself and adapt to changing conditions; an unhealthy system closes itself off, expends its remaining energy and begins to die. Looking backward to an earlier era closes us off. Making improvements to our existing practices closes us off. Shuffling the deck chairs closes us off.
Thankfully, learning and adapting to change is, in fact, the nature of life. Nature herself provides the guidance we need to embark on the journey into complex systems change (see Part I). To craft a new vision for a social and economic system that values all of us equally, we begin by asking the question, Where do we want to go? It’s a question that points to what our communities should look like 100 years or seven generations from now. It’s an invitation to follow a new North Star that keeps us oriented throughout the destabilising and emergent journey from chaos to remediation to resilience.
The journey itself—the exploration of the question, How are we going to get there?—is a radical departure from our conventional approach to change. In nature, change never happens as a result of top-down, pre-conceived strategic plans, or from the mandate of any single individual or boss. Change emerges as the system connects to more of itself, and information and relationships flow freely among its many interrelated parts.
A Framework for Decision-Making
One of us, Sallie Calhoun, has been on the journey from chaos to remediation to resilience for nearly 20 years on her ranch in Central California. For most of the last 180 years, the 7,000 acres of rangeland now under her stewardship had been grazed continuously by sheep or cattle, resulting in degraded soil and the almost complete disappearance of native grasses. This was not unique to Sallie’s ranch. In 2015, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization estimated that the world may have as little as 60 years of topsoil left, a result of chemical-heavy farming, deforestation and global warming.
Sallie had a vision for something different on her land. She wanted to see the grasslands come back. This would allow plants to harvest solar energy year-round, sequester carbon and hold water more efficiently—all of which contributes to rebuilding healthy soil, improving ecosystem function and cultivating biodiversity. She knew where she wanted to go, but she didn’t have a framework for how to get there until she came across Holistic Land Management.
Holistic Management, according to its Zimbabwean founder Allan Savory, is a decision-making framework to help ensure that actions taken to restore land and livelihoods are ecologically, socially and economically sound. It’s an approach that seeks to work with, rather than against, life’s natural tendency to self-organise into greater levels of complexity.
By taking a holistic approach to transforming her land, Sallie arrived at a series of five questions that continuously guide her toward her North Star of restoring the grasslands:
- What tools do I have available?
- What is my first step?
- What can I monitor to tell me if I’m going in the right direction?
- Whom else can I learn from who’s also on this journey?
- How do I want my life to be while we work on this?
Now for the big leap.
We authors believe that the journey of restoring our economy from chaos to remediation to resilience can follow the same holistic path. As with agriculture, the economy is an extraordinarily complex whole in which the mismanagement of natural resources, human needs and financial requirements have resulted in a degraded system, like soil, that is unable to sustain all life. By working intentionally with life’s complexity, we can continuously learn and adapt to our changing environment and produce an economic system that is organised around the values of interdependence and inclusion, and one that operates within the resource limits of a finite planet.
1. What tools do I have available?
On the ranch, there are nine tools for managing natural resources: money, labour, human creativity, technology, rest, fire, grazing, animal impact and living organisms. The tools in and of themselves do not have a purpose; they have an effect. The effect will either give us more of what we want or less of what we want, and the only way to know which direction the tool will take us in is by trying it out.
The first five of these tools apply in the workplace. Our conventional change management practices often confuse the means and the end: we introduce new technologies or hire and fire people as if those actions were the solution—as opposed to recognising they are simply tools for change and may or may not produce the intended effect.
On the ranch, Sallie began by assessing the tools at her disposal. Many of her ranching peers, she believed, had developed an overreliance on technology, pouring too many chemicals into the soil, and through overgrazing, taking too much biological capital out of it. It was as if the grasses were caught in a debt cycle: just as the new shoots were coming up, they’d be re-grazed before they had enough time to fully recover. It was true that crop yields were rising as a result of technology, but those gains were coming at the potentially irreversible expense of long-term soil health. Sallie knew she’d have to be willing to experiment with everything, and that no one tool would provide the silver bullet. She’d just have to make a decision about where to begin.
In the workplace, we, too, have money, labour, human creativity, technology and rest at our disposal. But we’ve developed some habits. More often than not, we rush to introduce more of some things (such as technology) and reduce others (such as labour). Not unlike conventional ranchers, we have a tendency to “overgraze” or take too much capital out of the system (to be pocketed as executive pay and shareholder profits). The effect of these practices in the U.S. over the past 40 years is that worker productivity rose nearly 70 percent while hourly pay essentially stagnated, rising less than 12 percent. Workers are stressed and underpaid; suppliers are captive to outsized corporate buyers who demand lower costs and accelerated delivery; and consumers have lost faith in all institutions—business, government, non-profits and the media. Meanwhile, as 46 million Americans filed for unemployment since the beginning of COVID-19, U.S. billionaires wealth grew more than $1.3 trillion.
Applying the tools of money, labour, creativity and technology in order to extract more cash value out of the system is accelerating systemic failure. The tools, however, are not the problem; the ends we’re putting them in service of are. When we take a holistic approach, we open ourselves up to putting the tools to work toward a new end, and then we consider adding more of and less of every tool—including the truly radical tool of allowing the system to rest.
2. What is my first step?
The first step is to stop the madness! We can’t remediate, Sallie says, while continuing to slash and burn. Remediation is a phase of active intervention which seeks to kick the system into some other state. Using the tools at our disposal, we look for action that is connected to a root cause, strengthens (or attacks) a weak link, or generates a material reaction—and one that improves our quality of life without adversely affecting others.
On the Ranch
Sallie’s first step was to apply the tool of rest, which meant to stop grazing and allow the plants to recover. Rest was not a tool she intended to use indefinitely; it was one she hoped would kickstart the plant and soil recovery process. As a rancher with an interest in the long-term productivity and health of her land, she was keen to discover whether this first step would begin to disrupt the degradation of the ecosystem. And while she hoped it would, she also began with the assumption that she’d be wrong—and that she’d have to do some monitoring and measuring to find out.
In the Workplace
Perhaps nothing could be more radical in the workplace than rest—though it’s not unprecedented. After 20 years of successfully running The Berkana Institute, author and systems thinker Margaret Wheatley decided to experiment with what happens when an organisation purposefully enters a reflective period of stillness. After its “hibernation”, Berkana reemerged to pioneer innovative work that was true to its mission but profoundly new in practice and form.
Most of us are not in a position to put our organisations on pause. But here’s the thing: COVID-19 did that for us. The pandemic extended a global invitation to slow down, to rest, to stop the madness. What would happen if we followed Sallie’s lead and began to observe the impact of the tool of rest on our organisations? What has been disrupted? What recovery processes are emerging? Rather than rush to start back up wherever we left off, what might we never do again and what might we try for the first time?
3. What can I monitor to tell me if I’m going in the right direction?
We start with a hypothesis, take the first step and assume we’re probably wrong. That’s where feedback loops come in. Positive feedback amplifies the system, resulting in growth or decline (for example, a warmer atmosphere melts ice which contributes to further warming the atmosphere). Negative feedback inhibits the system, ensuring that the system stabilises (think of how a thermostat regulates room temperature). Once you find out which direction your actions are taking you, you adapt your hypothesis, adjust your plan and take another action.
We’re already pretty good at measuring. The problem is that we tend to measure one thing (such as crop yields or quarterly earnings) at the expense of everything else. And we tend to measure what’s happening now at the expense of what might happen 20 or 100 years from now. When monitoring feedback loops, we want to choose indicators that tell us as much as possible about the health of the whole system.
On the Ranch
Rest and planned grazing worked well on the 6,200 acres of rangeland that had never been tilled. On north- and east-facing slopes, Sallie saw native grasses begin to reappear in greater diversity and density. Their appearance and the accompanying rise in healthy soil microbiology was what she was monitoring to tell her if she was heading in the right direction. But on the acres of her ranch that had been farmed, that strategy wasn’t working. She realised she’d have to try introducing technology in the form of drilling and planting diverse plants, hoping to kickstart the soil microbiology. Eventually, she started experimenting with composting, mob grazing and diverse seeding in order to adapt her approach to the unique characteristics of each area of her land.
In the Workplace
If ever there were a moment that exposed the disconnect between the way we evaluate our economy and the way we experience it, the COVID-19 era has been it. Despite rampant unemployment, broad-based business closures and the largest protest movement in the history of the U.S., the stock market has been sailing to ever-higher planes. When corporations persist in evaluating themselves based on stock price, they may also persist in amplifying inequality, exploiting workers and trashing the planet.
What if we started measuring things that told us whether we were contributing to or compromising well-being? Questions like:
- How are our employees housed? Is anyone homeless?
- Does our organisation have any full-time employees who are eligible for food assistance?
- Does everyone who works in our facilities have health insurance, including contract employees?
- What are the working conditions of the people who make our product?
- What happens to our product once it’s been thrown away?
- How are the communities we’re operating in doing?
- What’s the water quality like downstream from our facilities? Is someone else paying to clean up our mess?
4. Whom else can I learn from who’s also on this journey?
There are no experts who can be paid to prescribe the right answer when we embark on the journey through complex systems change. Rather, there are fellow travellers who can share stories, pass along experiments and provide companionship. The work of pioneering new practices can be alienating. Finding like-minded peers wrestling with similar challenges can fuel our courage and commitment to navigate uncertainty without reverting to the practices of the past.
More important, they can help remind us again and again that what we’re really up to is changing the way we see. Take a moment to picture the drawing of the vase and the two faces below, an image that plays with our sense of figure and ground. Some of us see the faces first; others the vase. As soon as the alternate image is pointed out to us, we see it forever. This is a distinction, something that allows us to see immediately what was previously invisible. These distinctions crack open our worldview, and all at once, so much more becomes possible.
On the Ranch
When Sallie first read Allan Savory’s book on Holistic Land Management, it was like having the vase pop into the foreground. It turned her worldview about ranching inside out, and she was hungry to learn more. So she took a class, showed up at a conference, hired fellow practitioners, joined an advisory council and began convening community herself. She sought out fellow ranchers who were learning by doing every day. Along the way, she and her peers recognised that much of what they were learning was wisdom that had been there all along—in indigenous ways of knowing, in sustainable land practices that had preceded the industrial age. Accompanying one another into unfamiliar territory allowed them to open up the aperture and ask questions they hadn’t asked before.
In the Workplace
A distinction emerged in 2020 with the murder of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis who was killed by police. Many white Americans woke up for the first time to the reality of structural racism embedded in the economic and social systems of the nation. Like the vase and the two faces, the alternate image—the one that reveals that America is not the land of equal opportunity—has always been present, but had been invisible to dominant white culture. Waking up to it has led to a wave of corporate pledges to increase diversity, support civil rights groups and amend policies.
This is the beginning of cracking open a worldview. But it’s far easier to revert to the norm—to signal diversity intentions and provide one-time cash payments to community groups—than it is to upend power dynamics in the workplace. For that, we need to walk alongside those are fluent in the language of power. In her book, “The Power Manual: How to Master Complex Power Dynamics,” author and activist Cyndi Suarez distinguishes supremacist power, the ability to dominate or control people and things, from liberatory power, the ability to create what we want. If we want to transform our organisations from ones that rely on relationships of domination and submission to ones that make space for every voice to have agency, then we’re going to have learn with and from those who already are experimenting with how to do this.
Practitioners of worker ownership and workplace democracy may be just the companions we need. According to ongoing studies by the National Center for Employee Ownership, giving workers a stake in how their lives are while they work contributes to employee retention, higher wages and increased household wealth. Giving workers a say also contributes to well-being. Workplace democracy brings such practices as voting, debates, systems of appeal and more into the office, resulting in increases in productivity, business longevity and worker satisfaction.
5. How do I want my life to be while we work on this?
We, ourselves, are part of the system we wish to change. How do we want to show up for the journey? This is not a design sprint where we hole ourselves up in a room with one another for five days. Nor is it a battle. It’s a lifelong practice with no finish line. As Meg Wheatley writes, “We’re not sitting on a high horse in full armour ready to charge. We’re trying to be the presence of sanity. And for this, we need to develop new skills.” These skills include compassion, curiosity, trust and collaboration. They also include learning how to set aside our expectations for fast results in favour of being present to what is actually unfolding in front of us. Yes, the need for change is urgent, but urgency can also be an obstacle to meaningful change. The need to respond now may preference quick, cosmetic results over the long, uncertain effort of working emergently toward transformation.
On the Ranch
Sallie didn’t come from ranching, so she didn’t have a pre-conceived notion of what her life was supposed to be like. She also knew that as a woman, she was an outsider in a male-dominated field—which she thought gave her an advantage. Instead of presuming that her life should look like other ranchers’ lives, she decided what she valued most for herself: she wanted to experience joy, she wanted to learn, and she wanted to hang out with other ranchers. Joy arises from learning together; learning arises from practicing together; and practice arises from being willing to be uncertain.
In the Workplace
For decades, the workplace has had a particular rhythm—and often one that has not produced health and well-being. Many of us have spent too many hours at the office, too much time on airplanes, too many nights in hotels sleeping apart from our loved ones.
And then we went into lockdown.
What did we learn during this time at home? What did we notice about who had to keep showing up at work? How do we want to come back out into the world? How did what we value change? Imagine what might be possible if we emerged from this pandemic with the commitment to creating a workplace that values well-being for all of us.
The journey from chaos to remediation to resilience makes the same demands of us, whether we’re looking at ourselves as individuals, our organisations or our society. We must be willing to let go of what we know. We must be willing to fix what we’ve broken. And we must be willing to abandon our certainty, elevate the voices of those who have previously been silenced, take time to experiment, be willing to fail, and embrace the inevitability of disorder.
Who do you choose to be for this time?
Picture credits: Paicines Ranch